Off the Shelf: Legal anecdotes in the Talmud

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The traditional way to study Talmud is to follow the general flow of the work. Rarely do those studying the text stop to compare and analyze stories that occur in different tractates. However, Judith Hauptman, E. Billi Ivry Professor Emerita of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, became curious about the talmudic stories she noticed telling of rabbis who seemed to be circumventing the laws. In her fascinating “The Stories They Tell: Halakhic Anecdotes in the Babylonian Talmud” (Gorgias Press), Hauptman compares these anecdotes, which appear across the Talmud, and discovered a pattern: the stories are used to change the law under discussion. 

After studying hundreds of these stories, Hauptman discovered that, although there are some differences between individual tales, they generally promote a lenient way to practice the law under discussion. The author suggests that the material shows “that each halakhic anecdote innovates, that it does not merely show that a later rabbi piously upheld the rule of an earlier rabbi.... but teaches something new. I further argue that the new point is, in most cases, a lenient modification of an earlier state rule.” Underlying her thesis is the idea that the Babylonian Talmud “endorses, even promotes, halakhic change.”

Many of these legal anecdotes are a dialogue between two rabbis: a junior scholar questioning a senior scholar when he see the senior scholar perform an action that seems prohibited by the ruling under discussion. How does the senior scholar answer this question about his behavior? According to Hauptman, “the senior scholar defends his action, usually claiming that his specific circumstances do not fall under the purview of the stated rule. He has thus not violated it. His actions suggest that in circumstances like his own, the rule does not apply. It still does apply in all other circumstances, however.”

In order to prove her point, Hauptman offers examples of these stories in the original Hebrew/Aramaic with English translation before carefully unpacking the story to show what is really occurring. Many of these stories portray rabbis as special cases, which allow them to behave differently from Jews who are not rabbis. For example, one law under discussion is the requirement to go barefoot on Yom Kippur. The anecdotes featured tell of several rabbis who wore different kinds of shoes (not the traditional sandals worn at the time) by claiming they were weak or fastidious. They claim their case is an exemption to the rule, while at the same time, trying to show that because their footwear is different, they are not actual breaking the law.

Another case concerns whether, when traveling, men should be allowed to take a wife for a day in the town they are visiting. This marriage is limited to the length of his visit: before leaving, the man would give the woman a divorce. At first, the discussion calls this inappropriate behavior. The text then continues by showing several rabbis who took short-term wives during their travels. The ruling is then amended to say that it applies to everyone, except rabbis. Although there is a discussion of why this ruling doesn’t apply to rabbis, the suggestion seems an afterthought since the behavior has already been occurring. 

Something similar occurs when discussing where a person is required to recite the Kiddush (the blessing over the wine that sanctifies the Sabbath day). The ruling originally states even if someone recited the Kiddush during services in the synagogue, they had to do it again at the place they were going to eat their Sabbath meal. Hauptman notes that the three stories she cites each modify the ruling. The first shows that if a person recited Kiddush in a different room in their home, they had to recited it again in the room where they were going to eat their Sabbath meal. The second notes that if a person recited Kiddush and then ate a small amount of food, that satisfies the requirement to say the blessing where they ate. The third story takes this a bit further: it says that even if someone knows they are going to eat a complete meal somewhere else, having a small amount of food after they say Kiddush means they do not have to recite it again. Hauptman notes that “each of these anecdotes develops further the stated requirement to recite Kiddush where one dines, the first stringently and the next two leniently.” While the initial ruling was not again discussed, the stories changed and modified the law to give people more leeway to not have recite Kiddush a second time. 

Hauptman does a wonderful job carefully explaining and analyzing these talmudic anecdotes. Readers who have some familiarity with the Talmud will find her work easier to follow, but her commentary on the text is generally clear enough so those with little background can follow her explanations. “The Stories They Tell” would be an excellent resource for study groups interested in a different perspective on the Talmud or in a classroom setting.